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Upper Midwest Politics — As Blue as the Great Lakes

McCain may think he has a shot — but Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin remain solidly Democratic territory.

by
Ari J. Kaufman

Bio

July 28, 2008 - 12:48 am

This map presents a telling breakdown of our country’s voting patterns from the previous General Election. Not only does it discount simplistic “Red State/Blue State” rhetoric, but clearly proves America’s divides are between cities, their suburbs and college towns, versus the rest of (rural) America. Democrats hold the former, while the GOP grabs the latter. And not too much should change this fall.

But see the north-central portion of the USA.

While it’s normal to see blue around cities, the northern tips of very rural Minnesota and Wisconsin are blue (Democrat). There really are no other states like that. Why is this the case? A few weeks back, my fiancée and I drove up from Indiana to learn more.

Politically, the Midwest, with the exception of Ohio and Indiana, was the only non-coastal U.S. region to support Sen. Kerry in 2004. In 1992 and 1996, the Hoosier State was the sole state in this region not to vote for President Clinton.

Prior to this sojourn, I had visited every region east of the Mississippi, except these hinterlands. And though they are gorgeous locales, they’re only navigable about three months per year; or more specifically, as a local septuagenarian food stand owner in Duluth put it, “during the halcyon days” between June and August. (This mid-July night, lows actually moved into the upper 40s.)

Minnesota

After an 11 hour ride up from Central Indiana, we spent Saturday night in Saint Cloud, an hour northwest of Minneapolis. Sunday morning, I glanced at a story celebrating a local National Guard engineering unit returning after serving in Iraq. We then began our trek moving north through other surprisingly conservative Minnesota towns along the Mississippi-like Little Falls. The central part of the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is the largest right-leaning area in this left-leaning state. Catholic churches, war memorials, and American Legion posts are are found in these clean little towns throughout the region.

Farther north at the headwaters of the Mississippi River near Bemidji, we found large families with pick-up trucks and National Guard shirts enjoying the 75 degree weather and history of the area. Moving east across Northern Minnesota toward the Wisconsin border though, the folks’ politics take a hard left. At the picturesque Duluth harbor along Lake Superior’s western edge, anti-Bush stickers were affixed to many cars with clever slogans like “Bush ran from Vietnam; Bush ran from 9-11. Run, coward, run.” “The politics and people of Duluth mirror most mid-size Minnesota cities more accurately than Little Falls,” I was told by a local fisherman.

Minnesotans have a long history of socialism from their ancestry in liberal Scandinavian nations, who pride themselves on secular populism and “communal efforts.” The Minnesota Farmer Labor Party is well-known, and Minnesota last voted for a Republican presidential candidate during the 49-1 Nixon rout of McGovern 36 years ago. Minnesotans have since voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 (a Native Son, but still the only state he won) and Jimmy Carter twice. They also elected a former wrestler their governor.

This November, former comedian and failed talk show host Al Franken is running for Senate on the Democratic-Farm Labor Party ticket. However, though Minnesota is very liberal, John F. Kerry only won here by four percentage points in 2004. The state has a popular Republican governor in Tim Pawlenty, who many feel is on the so-called “short list” to be McCain’s running mate. Those connections to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are now 4th and 5th generation, thus fading. And though blonde people and past voting patterns make Minnesota seem homogeneous, their priorities and political beliefs often vary.

At the Duluth harbor on a splendid July evening, this was evident. I spoke with “Gretchen” and “Mark,” a recently married late 20s couple with a baby on the way. They support McCain. “We’re neither military nor religious, but also don’t feel comfortable with Obama,” Mark noted, while munching on a cheese curd, popular up here, but rather repulsive tasting to our uncultured Hoosier tongues. As Maria and I shared buffalo wings, Gretchen, whose first election was 2004, added that she was “uncomfortable changing horses in the middle of a stream.” Knowingly or not, she borrowed this from the famous 1864 election, when President Lincoln supporters stated such words during pivotal days of the Civil War.

On the other hand, Ruth, who with her four boys runs “Crazy Bills Cheese Curds,” is for Obama. Being 76, she has voted for Democrats going back to Adlai Stevenson. And despite Obama’s youth, she is not changing. “We don’t vote for Republicans, no matter what. Just not gonna happen, and I’m too old to go changing.”

The election of 2008 won’t be typical anywhere, as recent polls in Minnesota actually show a dead heat. But in the end, with its most urban district headed by Keith Ellison, a Muslim who is also a member of the Farm Labor Party and an Obama supporter, Minnesota seems a safe blue state, despite myriad VFW posts and military families in some areas. The state is a typical mix between urban and rural, but Minnesota’s river towns along the Iowa border and cities like Duluth will keep the state blue.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin, on the surface, seems similar enough to Minnesota. Both veteran senators (Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl) are strong Democrats, especially Feingold, one of the most liberal members of the Senate and a fierce critic of the Patriot Act since 2001. Despite having teamed with Sen. McCain on the controversial McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act years ago, Feingold is an Obama supporter.

Still, John Kerry only managed to win the state by less than half a percentage point. Returning to our map, Democrats seem to be consolidated everywhere: in the Milwaukee area, huge college towns like Madison, and especially in the west close to the Mississippi River. Why then was 2004 so close? And will this be the case in 2008 as well?

To find answers, we traveled through the Wisconsin’s Northernwoods, then down into Central Wisconsin. Scenes were very patriotic and conservative. Farms dotted undulating hills, while roaring rapids dominated the lush terrain below. “Pro-life Across America” signs, celebrating the annual summer walk, were every few miles along the highways. Like neighboring Minnesota, nearly 30% of Wisconsinites are Catholic, and churches of all denominations were abundant.

While eating delicious Italian beef at his country restaurant, “Denny,” a Democrat with a Chicago/Polish accent and a dangling cross, informed me that he supports Obama, while his wife Ellen, an Independent, was undecided. They both admire McCain’s experience, but fear a “third term for Bush.” Ellen also added that as a religious person, she’s “offended by Obama supporters who wear his face on shirts and treat him as God.” “That’s wrong,” she said angrily. “We came up by our bootstraps and love this nation, for the record.”

As you move south and west however, approaching the Great Lakes and flatlands toward the Chicago area, Volvos and Subarus begin to replace trucks and domestic sedans. Welcome to Madison: the Berkeley of the Midwest. As we moved toward campus on a 90 degree day, scantily-clad summer school students were headed to nearby Lake Mendota en masse. We went onto the beautiful campus where the usual college suspects were found; some distributing anti-war material, others skating and playing hacky sack. Obama stickers abound. He spoke before 16,000 here in February, and one guy I talked with said, “They could have filled up Camp Randall (football stadium with over 100,000 seats) for him but it was wintertime.” Inside the university bookstore, greeting cards mocked Bush and even the Clintons, but not Obama, who was displayed basically as a “BaRock Star.” There were “ImpeachMints” and “NationalEmbarrassMints” with the president’s face on them by the registers.

Noteworthy is that Madison, the most liberal city in Midwest outside Chicago, was the subject of a fascinating recent NY Times article bemoaning “the end of the 60s” on college campuses. But is Madison representative of the entire Badger State? The economy is good, as per the president of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, who told a local station we were listening to that “Wisconsin banks tend to be more conservative than the industry…our banks outperformed their peers out of state as we didn’t participate in any risky mortgage lending.”

This might help McCain. We spoke with a young construction worker who makes $13 per hour when in Michigan, but when in Wisconsin, he pulls down $31.50 per hour working 20 hour days for the fire department assisting residents during recent floods. With $355 per week unemployment in the winter, “Jim” is not complaining. When I inquired, the non-union member told me he is for McCain, but many of his colleagues support Obama. Most of them are union members.

Michigan

Michigan is only a tad different from its brethren to the west. The Wolverine State is extremely liberal in its cities and southeast population centers, and indeed has nearly twice the population of its western neighbors. Catholicism is less prevalent, while Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam is more the norm.

According to one local: “In light of the sad economic situation, and as a result of the near collapse of the auto industry, unionism maintains a stranglehold on those living in the big cities. Not only in Detroit’s metro area, but other major cities like Flint, Saginaw, Jackson and Ypsilanti.” Those cities, along with college towns, will vote for Obama. But up in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, politics are very conservative. A different world in many ways is found, with Dutch ancestry being common instead of Scandinavian. Though the Dutch are liberal in the Old World, in America they veer to the right politically.

A friend we visit each summer claims the GOP “runs unopposed” in these areas. However, Michiganders still selected Kerry by more than three percent four years ago. The outcome was perhaps determined by the remote Upper Peninsula. Although rural, the people tend to vote Democratic. The “U.P” contains almost one-third of the land area of Michigan but just three percent of the total population. Residents, frequently called “Yoopers” (derived from “U.P.-ers”), have a strong regional identity.

As in Vermont, there is a longstanding proposal involving the secession of the rustic Upper Peninsula. This new 51st state would be named “Superior” for Lake Superior, which forms the entire northern border.

I spoke about this topic to “Mark” at a KFC, and he said, “The idea gained attention at times, but no way will it come to fruition in my lifetime. Once the Mackinac Bridge {which gave the peninsula a direct highway link to the rest of the state} was constructed 50 years ago, we felt connections to the Lowlands of the state instead of just Wisconsin.”

We hiked in Porcupine Mountains State Park at the western edge of the UP on a pleasant day, noting that these particular Michiganders were hard working folks, especially during the summer tourist season. We noticed lots of flags on barnsides, but while these homogenous folks are patriotic, socially conservative, and fiscally too, politics are mixed. Three of the four state Representatives from the U.P. Peninsula are Democrats.

Economic issues are essential in Michigan, and have people uneasy. Governor Jennifer Granholm is unpopular, with recall petitions on the table. The state’s largest city has a corrupt mayor buried in a sex scandal. That said, Kerry won Michael Moore’s home state by more than three points.

How can Sen. McCain make Michigan, a very blue state, emerge red, especially considering Mitt Romney defeated him here? If blue-collar “FDR Democrats,” who will decide this election in many states, steer clear of the most liberal Senator in America, it’s possible. But many, especially union members, reiterate they’ll “never vote for a Republican.”

For more information, I contacted “Earl,” a retired local college professor who makes his summer home on a Northern Michigan farm.

“Ninety percent of the counties will vote McCain, but the key counties with large cities, aside from the state’s second largest city (Grand Rapids) will likely cause Michigan’s electoral votes to go to Obama,” he said. “McCain must satisfy the economic concerns of a huge population in this state which, for the most part, shares his strong stand on international terrorism.”

In my final analysis, after four days and 2,200 miles through these three states, I believe Obama, like Kerry in 2004, will keep them as blue as the splendid Great Lakes, with Michigan likely being the closest. Though they’ll be close, there are too many Democrats — not willing to be wooed by McCain’s centrism or turned off by Obama’s inexperience — in the major cities, suburbs, in college and river towns, for Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota to flip, even in 2008.

A former California schoolteacher and Indiana military historian, Ari Kaufman is now a corporate journalist residing in Lincoln, Neb.
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